TUESDAY TUNES: “Tunic” and “Kool Thing”, Sonic Youth

Like pretty much every other white girl of a certain age, I braved the sleet and snow last Tuesday to get a copy of Girl in a Band, the incisive and heartbreaking memoir by Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth renown.  I gobbled it down in less than 24 hours, and my opinion of it was consistent with others’: her vitriol towards Courtney Love and Lana Del Rey, while understandable, was a bit much, but reading about her artistic process, her attempts at balancing work and life, and negotiating her artistic integrity kept me reading to the last pages.  Though one might read her insights on her marriage and feminine identity in music as hashtag-mainstream feminist, she spoke only for herself, and the way she wrote about being a “strong woman” in music and the intersection of art and craft kept me company.  After I finished the book, I felt inspired and invigorated.

My love of the book came as a surprise, since I was never a huge fan of Sonic Youth.  My need for beauty and melody and redemption clashed with their loud guitar sounds and apocalyptic lyrics, and I found their name-dropping, trend-hopping antics showy and irritating.  When I was growing up, I was drawn to surrealism and avant-garde techniques, but Sonic Youth’s omnipresence made me think that theirs was the only way to be an underground artist.  Reading Girl in a Band inspired me to reappraise their music, and I’ve been listening to Goo while I’m at work.  (Turbulent music can come in handy in a loud office.)

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The Carpenters were pretty far out of vogue when I first heard Sonic Youth, and their adulation of a corny, square pop duo inspired much eye-rolling in me.  At the time I was unaware of Karen’s fight with bulimia or her painful family life (or her drumming!). I’d assumed SY had adopted the Carpenters in an ironic stance that was all too trendy in their early 90s heyday.  In the years since I’ve learned more about Karen’s sad background and come to respect her place in the firmament.  The open letter Kim wrote to Karen broke my heart with its empathy and gave me some context for “Tunic”. The song sounds so melancholy and eerie, and the handmade, public access kids’ pageant aesthetic of the video just hits my sweet spot.

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So listening to “Kool Thing” while reading through a work assignment on intersectionality was poignant and galvanizing.  This was the first song I ever heard by SY…I was twelve or thirteen and I HATED it.  Hated the loud guitars and the singsongy vocals and (what I then regarded as) the shallow lyrics.  I like how she and Chuck D are standing next to one another, frustrated with “white corporate America”.  They’ve got a point there.

I can’t say I’ll ever be a fan of SY.  I think Game Theory’s work does a more interesting job of bringing unusual techniques to pure pop, and Throwing Muses did a lot more with dissonance and surprise.  But listening to their albums at this remove helps me appreciate how important they were, and I’m glad I got to that point.

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